Living on the edge for the sake of the gospel (Colin Brown)

Colin Brown explores living on the edge for the sake of the gospel.

Colin BrownHere are some reflections on my time based at Yorkshire ArtSpace in Sheffield. This was a half-time post supported by Sheffield diocese, which ran from January 2006 to March 2009. The aim of the post was to be a Christian presence and witness for the gospel as a fellow artist amongst the 67 creative people in this purpose-built studio collective.

Here are just three of the headings from my reflections, with principles learned. I share them as they may be helpful to you.

  • Risk and support – There were elements of risk on all parties. It felt very 'on the edge' of the safety of the church, where 'ministry' and how to do it had been ingrained and learned through experience and training. Forming a good level of support was vital, for accountability to the wider church, and for a sense of connection and place to reflect with various levels of leadership.

    Principle: form strong links with those who have an interest in the ministry, with regular meetings and reports

  • Church – It felt difficult to maintain the link with the local parish and with church in general. This was probably due to time constraints, but also reflects a sense of feeling 'dislocated' from inherited church and its models of worship and ministry. I felt stretched in two distinct directions: church and 'the edge'. I felt called to minister on the edge, so had to let go of the other to some extent, whilst maintaining a healthy spirituality and discipleship.

    Principle: learn to live with the paradox of being of the church, but (often) not physically in it

  • Unknown – Although not attending congregational church, God was very much with me (and everyone) in Yorkshire ArtSpace – the place of mission. Prayer was key, asking for the Spirit's leading every day and for encounters with people there. Conversations happened through openness – a deliberate (although I was led to it) attitude of remaining open to the different people and what God might be doing in their lives. I would silently ask 'what are you doing in this person's life Lord, and how might you want me to join in?'

    Principle: Be open to being a 'catalyst' to the Spirit in every encounter

A spirituality of contemplative activism (Colin Brown)

Colin BrownColin Brown explores a spirituality of contemplative activism.

Last month 23 'fresh expressions pioneers' were on a five-day retreat at Lee Abbey, on the north Devon coast. It was facilitated by me and three others and I'd like to share a bit about it with you.

We put on the advertising that this was:

  • a special, prayerful place to stop for a few days;
  • space to reflect, pray, worship and listen;
  • time to be recharged, refreshed, reinvigorated, encouraged … by giving space and time to God and to yourself.

As we know, Jesus modelled this as he spent time alone with God the Father in prayer, often in isolated places. He seemed to need the space to enable the activity of his ministry – 'time out' with God. Then he passed this on.

In Mark's gospel the disciples are sent out by Jesus two-by-two. On their return they gather around Jesus, eager to tell him all that they've done. His response to them is: 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile' (Mark 6.31).

The work of building fresh expressions of church can be demanding, but even Jesus needed time out! How much time out are we giving ourselves?

St Bernhard of Clairvaux – one of the great reformers of the 14th century encouraged his people with these words in a Pentecost sermon:

'If you be wise, you will make yourselves reservoirs rather than channels of God's love – the difference being the channel discharges all its water almost as soon as it is received – and a reservoir waits until it is full to the brim and only gives away what is superfluous – it gives away without loss to itself.

'…we have in the church today many channels, but few reservoirs. We want to give away before we have received, more willing to speak than to listen. Beloved, learn to minister from the overflow and do not desire to be more generous than God … behold how much has to be poured into us that we may venture to pour out, giving of our plentitude, not of our poverty.'

At Lee Abbey it took time for us to begin to change gear … to move into that place of 'being' rather than 'doing'. Many of us are activists, and rightly so because action is a vital part of life, and of ministry. We don't feel called to just sit and pray that God will magically change the world. As St Francis prayed: 'Make me a channel (or reservoir?) of your peace'.

There is a balance to be found between contemplation and action. By 'contemplation' I don't mean navel-gazing, but a rhythm of prayerful awareness of God – of his love, his abiding presence, and the challenge of his gospel. It can and does lead to action – often starting with the one person I can change – me! And then out into a needy world. Could contemplation be a crucial step along the way towards fresh expressions of church? I recommend a Grove booklet by David Runcorn on this subject, entitled The Road to Growth Less Travelled – spiritual paths in a missionary church.

In chapter 5 – 'A Contemplative Spirituality' – Runcorn says this:

'[Contemplation] is not about being quiet rather than active. Contemplative traditions … have close links to the awakening of social conscience and to resistance movements. It is a way of depth and maturing that will help lead people away from a religion of easy answers…'

We don't have to be 'introvert' to go deeper in our faith, or to enjoy the space and silence of God's embrace that is beyond words and human activity. In Myers Briggs terms I am an 'extrovert', yet I have come to value silence and contemplation greatly, especially as a means of listening – to my deeper self, and to God in the midst of my responses to life.

The retreat was a journey for all. Like a super-tanker, it takes time to stop, especially when we're very active. In time the initial struggles gave way to a deeper ease. Much was shared and learned from one another and from God, in a safe and held space. 

Here are reflections from a few of the pioneers, when asked what the retreat had been for them:

  • peace, space and affirmation;
  • an unexpected sense of healing;
  • inspiring, enlightening, relaxing, connected;
  • time to live and breathe again, and a sense of His intimacy with me.

The retreat was not a conference. It was a place with space to be with God. We don't have to go all the way to north Devon to find space and God. It's about finding a rhythm for you and God in daily life.

Put out into deep water (Colin Brown)

Colin Brown challenges us to put out into deep water.

'God believes in creative experimentation' claims a page in the Guide. And Are there any dangers? Haven't there been scandals in the past? talks of the importance of taking risks and moving forward.

Sand and seaA thread running through many fresh expressions is God's call to take risks – to step out of comfort zones. Maybe the Spirit doesn't want us to become too settled or reliant on our own way of doing mission and being church.

Jesus did this when he called his first disciples – pioneers who helped God to build his church. To Simon the fisherman, who had caught nothing all night long, Jesus says, 'Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.' (Luke 5.4) Although he is sceptical, Simon does so and then experiences what it means to trust in the power of God. Perhaps he doesn't really understand why his net is full, but now the way he sees Jesus is changed through taking the risk.

The spirituality of fresh expressions is the spirituality of risk. We can sit on a familiar shoreline and gaze at the shallows where we have grown comfortable with the way things are. But Jesus offers a deeper invitation: to try something different; to see that there may be new ways of reaching people and finding some way to answer the question, 'what might the kingdom of God look like for them?'

As fresh expressions leaders have taken a risk, however, sometimes they find that this didn't work out. But that first step was important. God showed them one path, only for them to find that this leads to something else quite different. Yet, to get there, the first step was vital.

Simon Peter took the risk of 'putting out into deep water'. How might God be asking something similar of you, or your church? Ask him to show you, and to be the power needed for his kingdom come.

Follow the cloud (Colin Brown)

Colin Brown follows the cloud.

A number of pages in the Guide emphasise the importance of listening, particularly '360 degrees listening'.

Cloud and sunHave you ever wondered if the thoughts you have about helping God build his church are actually from him? I mean, how do we know that our idea is part of God's way ahead and will bear fruit that will last?

Many leaders of fresh expressions have learned that this 'discernment' is a constant challenge. Of course prayer plays a vital part. Not the sort of prayer that tells God what we want him to do, but prayer that is listening, as well as asking the way ahead.

The Israelites' time in the desert is a good example for us. Moses and the people had done everything just as the LORD had commanded them. They had built the tabernacle – the place of meeting where Moses really encountered the person of God.

Where do you go to be with God? Perhaps you have set aside a special time and place … to share your deeper desires … and to listen well to God, to get tuned in.

God gave the Israelites a sign. A cloud would show them when to move on and where to go. When it stayed over the tent, they stayed put. Only when the cloud moved, did they continue to the next stage of the journey.

What's the sign of God's leading for you? Maybe it's visible, like the cloud. Most likely it's more of a gut-instinct. Like the Israelites, there will be times of waiting and a time to move. It's a life-long lesson for all of us. Ask God to show you, and keep looking … keep listening.

Colin Brown

Colin BrownJust over a year ago Colin Brown moved to Cornwall to start a fresh expression of church amongst the artistic community. It's a slow, steady task but one Colin, Church Army and the Diocese of Truro are committed to.

It's not easy starting a fresh expression of church from scratch at the best of times, but when you are trying to engage with a dispersed community of artists on the south coast of Cornwall, it is even more difficult. Colin Brown knows he has his work cut out. "As well as the joys of being in a beautiful place, and doing what I love to do – painting – I find myself with a lot of questions", he said.

Colin Brown - FlushingAnd it is quite a list: "How do I follow God's lead in this? Where do I put my energy today? How do I go about meeting people who don't go to church and help them to become aware of God in their lives… in their art? What might church look like for them, and what part do I play in developing that?"

But slowly and surely the way forward for Colin is beginning to emerge. He started with prayer, valuing the importance of listening, silence and space, and then realised God was leading him to meet certain people and opening certain doors. He was asked to help with chaplaincy work at the local art college, given the chance to mount an exhibition in a local pub, found a temporary studio space in a local vicarage and began to meet other artists at a weekly night class.

Colin Brown - FerryColin is at the stage of building community amongst those he meets. It is something which he believes he needs to take slowly and gently, and is grateful that both Church Army and the Diocese of Truro, who support him, agree. "They have given me the freedom and the permission to be here, as an artist amongst fellow artists, to be inculturated in the artistic community, and to be accepted".

He is aware of the risks he is taking too. He has worked for the church for 15 years but his pioneering work in Cornwall seems to be much more fragile. He's realised how important it is to gather those around him who 'get it' but still admits that things may not work out.

Colin Brown - harbour"I know that in this particular moment I need to be faithful to my sense of where God is leading me, but it may be that it all just fizzles out. But I know that I have been true to myself and I know God is saying to me 'Colin, enjoy it, enjoy the journey and don't think too much about what is going to happen tomorrow'".

And deep down Colin has a dream – to see lots of artists in and around Falmouth discovering and expressing a deep sense of God coming through their work. "And who knows where that might lead," he wonders.